Saturday, February 20, 2010

Desert Springs

See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland. (Isaiah 43.19)

Full Disclosure

It’s time for full disclosure. I get the Lenten wilderness metaphor. I understand its scriptural origins, both in the account of Israel’s journey and Christ’s temptation in the desert. As I hope posts here confirm, I’m captivated by the wealth of insight to be found in Lent’s wilderness. And I embrace it fully. But there’s also a part of me that resists it—which, come to think of it, may be why I’m fascinated by it. The imagery and sensations associated with the desert often put me off. They’re sterile, harsh, arduous, and intimidating, which is nothing like what I perceive following Christ to be. Indeed, outside Lent’s regimen of self-denial, very little seems to reflect how Jesus characterizes His way. For example, in Matthew 11.28-30, He says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest… For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” In John 15.11, He says He’s taught us to live “so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” I wrestle with this, because Lent’s pilgrimage is studded with moments of weariness and anxiety. The desert isn’t a happy place.

But can it be a happy place? I’m finding it can—or more surprising, it is. In times past, I’ve embarked on fasts and seasons of consecration as purgative periods to cast off old thoughts and habits impeding my spiritual growth. I’ve regarded the desert as a prime spot for taking personal inventory and envisioned unhealthy passions shriveling up in the hot sun, leaving a trail of bleached carcasses behind to mark my path. Most definitely, shedding unwanted aspects of our personalities is a noble, necessary Lenten pursuit. Yet asceticism’s appeal evaporates quickly for people like me, whose drive and vision thrive in green pastures of creativity. We’re poorly suited for wilderness experiences because they don’t give us much to work with. We reach the first barren stretch and say, “What am I supposed to do now?” Again, in the spirit of full disclosure, part of us resents being led to such inhospitable places. Our first impulse is to get out as soon as possible, hoping the landscape will improve soon. If we make a run for it, though, we frustrate God’s purpose for bringing us to desolate places. We never see what He wants to show us. And it is a beautiful, joyous thing to behold.

On the Lookout for the New

Permitting the desert to strip away old ideas and compulsions—to purify us—only realizes half of our journey’s purpose and potential. There’s another side to Lent that many of us never see: the opportunity for exposure to something new, to watch God’s transformative power at work in us. And here’s the thing. Unless we walk this wilderness on the lookout for the new, it can happen right in front of us without our noticing it. Listen to what He says to Israel, which has been blinded to His power by years of trudging through desolation: “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.” (Isaiah 43.19)

Israel can’t see it because it’s not looking for anything new. It’s fallen into a rut of same-old, same-old, passively riding what Joni Mitchell exquisitely called “the carousel of time.” It builds, its enemies destroy, it rebuilds, and its enemies return. While this up-and-down, up-and-down motion persists, it sails through a yearly cycle of observances—fasts and feasts, sowing and reaping, repentance and rejoicing. Since it all looks and feels the same, Israel runs on autopilot. Its itinerary basically boils down to “get through this and things will get better.” In times of deprivation, whether politically imposed or religiously mandated, Israel insists on looking down the road instead of seeing what’s underway. It’s so accustomed to repetitive history and ritual the idea God may be altering the landscape never crosses its mind.

How the Desert Works

The desert is unique among climatic regions in its propensity for sudden change. Its terrain can literally shift before one’s eyes. Towering, impassable dunes can vanish with one blast of wind. Forbidding obstacles can give way to new passages. A deluge below the horizon can unleash torrents of water that find their way into dry riverbeds. Streams can appear without notice and within hours, their currents and banks can burst with new life. Overnight, the most barren expanse can bloom into a breathtaking oasis. Although desert travelers never know when or where this may happen, they live in expectancy it will. They keep their senses attuned to every possibility so they’ll perceive changes the instant they arrive. What’s more, they dismiss running from desolation in search of happier places because, given how the desert works, when they reach the place they’re looking for, they may find there’s no “there” there.

Surely God calls us into the wilderness to subject us to its harshness, steering us through sterile cauldrons that strip away our impurities. But in exchange for what the desert exacts from us, we should also expect to find new life—to see splendor unlike any we’ve ever encountered. The desert springs with lovely, unpredictable surprises. Expanses of deprivation and anxiety instantly turn into havens of refreshment and rest. The wilderness is where God does new things. May He grant us wisdom and vision to perceive them.

In an instant, the desert can spring with fresh life. Lent’s wilderness journey is as much about encountering the new as shedding the old.

(Tomorrow: Made for Us)

Friday, February 19, 2010

To Be Tempted

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. (Matthew 4.1)


Since time immemorial, humans have created myths about the quest for understanding as odysseys through hostile territories. Gilgamesh wanders to the ends of the earth. Ulysses sails treacherous seas in search of a home. Beowulf follows the dragon into its lair. Dorothy overcomes extraordinary opposition in the land of Oz. Luke Skywalker invades the Death Star to defeat Darth Vader. These epics reflect a similar dynamic in legends of great spiritual leaders like Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, and other mystics who voluntarily separate themselves from life’s comforts to seek revelation and truth. The prominence (and durability) of this paradigm in myth and legend validates the importance of stepping away from the everyday in search of the uncommon. And while many of the tales present this phenomenon as happenstance—picturing their heroes as innocents who collide with fate—Matthew 4.1 tells us why Jesus goes into the wilderness. But its reasons aren’t exactly clear at first.

Experience Required

He is “led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” The former English teacher in me wants to grab his red pen and tear that sentence apart, because it’s a nightmare of ambiguity. It can be read in one of several ways. The Spirit sends Jesus into the desert for the sole purpose of confronting the tempter. The Spirit leads Him into the desert, where it just so happens the tempter lay in wait. The Spirit chooses the desert as the site where Jesus will be tempted. However we tilt it, though, there’s a peculiar strain of supernatural collusion running through it—a sense that the Spirit and the tempter somehow are in cahoots on this. “I’ll get Him there,” the Spirit says, and the tempter agrees, “Once He’s there, I’ll do the dirty work.” If this is the case, we must ask why. It’s unwise to assume their motives are the same, based on Paul’s questions in 2 Corinthians 6.14: “What do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?”

It’s apparent by what transpires in the wild that the devil intends to destroy Jesus’s faith and confidence. Knowing this illuminates the Spirit’s motives, which are the direct opposite. It sends Jesus into the desert to strengthen His faith and confidence. Remember: He enters the desert relatively soon after John baptizes Him and God openly declares Jesus is His Son. Saving the world from sin is a task of unparalleled enormity—a job description that comes with an “experience required” caveat. The Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to gain human experience, to know the torment of temptation, and most important, to learn temptation can be defeated. Yes, Jesus exits the desert in resounding triumph. But He gives us clear indication His success doesn’t completely erase the bitterness of the ordeal. In fact, He implies it’s an experience we should ask to escape. In His first sermon following his desert odyssey, He teaches us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” (Matthew 6.13)

Finding Grace

Thus, we pray as Christ taught, word-for-word—many of us daily, and some of us several times a day. So why does God lead us into temptation? The answer is nested earlier in the Prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done.” (v10) We enter temptation by divine will in order to discover the truth of God’s kingdom. Look at Christ’s temptations. The evil one taunts Him to satisfy physical cravings by turning stones to bread. It taunts Him to prove He’s God’s Son by jumping off a cliff and trusting angels to save His life. It whets His human desire for status by offering Him the world’s kingdoms and power. In every test, Jesus refuses to yield by citing God’s will for His life. “I don’t live by bread alone.” “I will not question God.” “I won’t worship anything but God.”

Lent is a self-imposed desert sojourn. Yet it’s being voluntary doesn’t negate the fact that each of us is led into the wilderness to be tempted. It’s supposed to be tough. We’re supposed to undergo moments of weakness and fatigue. We’re supposed to face fear and tough decisions. This is because we’re supposed to leave the wilderness with deeper experience and understanding. What’s more, wisdom we gain in the wilderness teaches how to deal with temptation at home. In Jesus’s case, flash forward to Palm Sunday. Are the crowds proclaiming Him king any different than the devil offering the kingdoms of the world? Not really. Knowing what He faces on the other side of Jerusalem’s walls, would it not be easier for Jesus to accept their praise as a popular coronation? Most definitely. Yet having overcome desert temptation, He’s able to recognize temptation in the town. He’s already grappled with choosing God’s will over worldly want. The strength to face Calvary has been in Him since those lonely desert days.

Following the Spirit’s lead into the wilderness enables us to follow Christ to the cross. Hebrews takes it one step further, saying Christ’s battles with His flesh and spirit open the door for us to receive grace, confidence, and strength for our battles. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4.15-16) It’s God’s will we face temptation—not to test us, but to teach us. The tempter will present offers we’ll struggle to refuse, until we recall what we’re really looking for. We’re led into the desert to be tempted, but the real reason for our journey is finding grace to help us in our time of need.

We’re led into the desert to be tempted, but finding grace is our real purpose for being there.

(Next: Desert Springs)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Travel Light

These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra tunic.” (Mark 6.8-9) 

Too Many Things

Comparing suitcases is all it takes to separate seasoned travelers from neophytes. Experienced travelers appreciate the benefit of carrying as few necessities as possible. It lightens their load, minimizes distractions, and frees them to discover new things. Unseasoned travelers cram their bags with extra outfits, accessories, and commodities just in case this or that happens. They exhaust themselves lugging heavy loads of stuff they'll probably never use. It never occurs to them wherever they go, they’ll find help with their unanticipated needs. Fear of the unknown and distrust of the unfamiliar weighs novice travelers down.

People who travel light find those who travel heavy bemusing. Their inability to leave the comforts of home behind begs questioning why leave home at all. In contrast, many veterans purposefully skimp on what they carry because they've learned some of their greatest delights emerge when unforeseen needs take them off the beaten path, exposing them to local customs and solutions they’re able to integrate into their lives. They return with stories and knowledge they’ll always remember. Neophytes come home with pictures and souvenirs they eventually box up and forget until they move to a new place. Taking too many things on their travels ultimately burdens them with too many things at home.

How to Pack

In Mark 6, as Jesus sends His disciples out to minister, He instructs them how to pack. The specificity of His list is quite surprising. “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra tunic,” He says. Here is a veteran Traveler offering sound advice to novices. His instructions come fairly soon after His personal ordeal in the wilderness. He knows first-hand that the disciples won’t discover the benefits of trusting God to provide if they’re lugging a lot of stuff along just in case. They won’t learn invaluable lessons from people they meet, hardships they face, and answers they find.

Jesus whittles their packing list to two essentials—a staff and a pair of sandals—and we shouldn’t gloss over the relevance of these items. A staff equips each disciple to maintain balance on rugged terrain. It protects against predators and thieves. And it provides shelter if rain and dust storms catch them en route between villages; the staff serves as tent pole to support their cloaks and hide them from hostile elements. Sandals also protect them from rocky roads and hot sand. But they’re mainly preventative. Without them, the disciples might end up incapacitated by cuts and blisters. Jesus doesn’t want them to slow down to nurse their feet. To gain the most from their journey, they must keep going.

Staffs and Shoes

Jesus’s pragmatic reasons for limiting the disciples to staffs and shoes escape us today. Yet they also have important value in biblical iconography. Staffs attest to God’s power to rescue and provide for His people. Moses stretches his staff over the Red Sea and it parts. When Israel’s trek takes them out of range of fresh water, he taps a rock with his staff and refreshment gushes out. Meanwhile, shoes speak to God’s presence. We conclude this by noticing people remove their shoes any time they encounter the pure presence of God. When traveling through places where God’s holiness is compromised, however, the shoes on our feet signify He’s with us. Our safe passage is assured.

When we apply these lessons to Lent, we come away with one message: travel light. Much of what we’re tempted to bring with us is unnecessary. Indeed, it will only halt us from trusting God’s provision as we travel. We short our potential for unforgettable experiences and knowledge we can integrate into our daily lives. All we need are the staff of God’s power and shoes that shield us with His presence. Balance we seek is in our hand. Protection and shelter are, too. Walking in God’s Spirit keeps us from suffering undue injury and harm. We can keep traveling ahead, discovering fresh wonders along the way.

If we’ve entered Lent’s wilderness with too much, it’s not too late to eliminate just-in-case items that bog us down. We carry them because we’re afraid of the unknown and distrustful of the unfamiliar. But armed with God’s power and shod with His presence, there’s no cause for fear and apprehension. Hebrews 12.1 and 2 reads like the perfect Lent pilgrim’s prayer: Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. In terms of wilderness travel, there’s no one better than He to teach us the best way to go. Travel light.

Entering Lent's wilderness with everything we think we’ll need bogs us down and keeps us from invaluable experiences we can use when we return home.

(Tomorrow: To Be Tempted)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Every Step You Take

Better a little with righteousness than much gain with injustice. In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps. (Proverbs 16.8-9) 


If we approach Lent as a season, we measure it by days: 40, 39, 38, etc. Yet when we perceive it as a journey, we measure it by steps—one after another, each taken one moment at a time. In this regard, then, Lent doesn’t begin with Ash Wednesday. It starts the minute our feet touch the floor and our hearts turn toward God’s will and direction. Every step is marked by keen awareness of where we are, what we’re doing, and the purpose we find in every moment.

We set out on our journey with a planned course, having searched our souls to evaluate where we should be and steeled our spirits to cross the wilderness that has prevented us from getting there. We enter this rugged country with our maps and instincts. But as Proverbs says, God ultimately determines our steps. Because of this, we cherish every step as a gift from Him.

Drop the Metaphor

Suppose we drop the metaphor and embrace Lent as an actual journey—a 40-day odyssey through our lives that we experience as something altogether new. Suppose we pray for fresh eyes and objectivity to take every step as though we were tourists in a strange land, trying to interpret and adjust to foreign customs, values, and terminology. What would we find? How would we react?

Answers to such questions vary widely from person to person. Yet I somehow suspect we’d all notice pitfalls of excess, as well as flatlands of excuse-making. Measuring Lent in steps rather than days shows us where we habitually trip over ourselves and how often we stray from our God-given purpose. It also alerts us to steps we don’t take—the lonely neighbor we never seem to get to, the quiet moments we never find, the forgiveness we never can bring ourselves to deliver. These steps are God’s gifts to us, gifts we too easily refuse when we measure our lives by time’s passage rather than true progress. Making Lent’s journey real sheds the pretense of not having enough time or energy or resources to go where we’re supposed to go and do what God uniquely created each of us to do. Getting there is a matter of taking the right steps, not finding the right time.

Better a Little

“Better a little with righteousness than much gain with injustice,” Solomon writes. The Lenten fast’s discipline teaches us to be content with less than usual. But the journey’s step-by-step measure encourages us to be grateful for incremental obedience and success. Every step we take, whether it’s part of the most mundane activities of our lives or a giant leap in overcoming temptation and weakness, is one more step—“a little with righteousness.” Commencing this journey with grandiose designs on the future does us a great injustice. God’s presence is revealed and felt with every step. His Spirit leads us into the wilderness and walks with us to teach us in real time as we go. And if we measure our journey one step at a time, the ways we walk and talk and think as we start will be significantly different when we finish.

I count it a true privilege to walk this journey with you, and pray you’ll find it rewarding with every step you take.

Note: We’ll mark our Lent journey together by resuming daily posts from today until Easter. I hope you’ll join us as often as possible and contribute your thoughts to this marvelous, shared experience.

Lent’s wilderness journey isn’t a metaphor; it’s a very real and literal, step-by-step reassessment of our lives.

(Tomorrow: Travel Light) 

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Wisdom's Ways

The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. (James 3.17)

Educated Fools

My grandmother often warned to beware educated fools. “The person who brags about how much he knows doesn’t know anything,” she said. Her advice resurfaces every time I see “experts” toss out facts and figures like grenades to destroy one another's credibility instead of providing insights to the topic at hand. We aren’t interested in who’s smarter. We’re looking for wisdom. Whether with a gallery of pundits or a group of friends, when discussions escalate into arguments, wisdom’s door slams. Its pursuit is corrupted by conflict, rudeness, one-upmanship, intolerance, and vanity. None of these qualities conforms to wisdom’s ways.

One needn’t belong to MENSA to see using knowledge to belittle or alienate others is unwise. First, it assumes one’s knowledge forecloses another’s right to think and believe differently. If that were true, we could gladly defer to experts. But what seems empirically true from the ivory tower rarely resembles ground truth. Second, passions stirred by intellectual conflict only increase confusion. Ego tramples the soul of the issue, leaving no cause to continue the discussion. Finally, cuts and bruises obtained during clashes of minds inevitably affix to the issue. It becomes a sore spot that never heals. When Isaiah opens his prophecy, Israel is deeply scarred by differences. “From the soul of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness—only wounds and welts and open sores, not cleansed or bandaged or soothed with oil,” he writes. (Isaiah 1.6) How can they remedy their condition? “’Come now, let us reason together,’ says the LORD. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.’” (v18) Wisdom seeks to heal and purify. Intellectual arrogance hopes to divide and demean.

Climates and Creatures

When Jesus dispatches the disciples, He says, “I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves,” adding, be “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” (Matthew 10.16; KJV) His parallels to the animal kingdom are most enlightening. He alerts the disciples they’re venturing into predatory climates where creatures instinctively pounce on new and unconventional ideas. The disciples should anticipate challenges and outright attacks. But rather than engage in conflicts, He instructs them to employ snake-like strategies while adopting dove-like behavior. This sounds contradictory until we consider how Scripture describes serpents and doves. Genesis 3.1 reads, “Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made,” Snakes are endowed with heightened sensitivities to their situation. They’re extremely focused on their objectives and their subtlety is why they’re so persuasive. Unlike wolves that frighten their prey with snarls and bared teeth, snakes steal into striking range.

We get what Jesus means—don’t resort to intimidating methods that characterize arguments. But He stops short of endorsing any reason to strike. “Harmless as doves” means we remain pure, staying above the conflict rather than being swept up by it. The Bible’s first sighting of a dove comes in Genesis 8, where Noah sends it out to see if the floodwaters have receded. Verse 9 says, “But the dove could find no place to set its feet because there was water over all the surface of the earth.” Like every Christian principle, this is counterintuitive. We rise above baseness of arrogant knowledge by humbling ourselves in service to wisdom. We’re aware of the climates and creatures around us, just as snakes are. Yet like doves we elude confrontation. We don’t light where danger and confusion exist.

“The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere,” James 3.17 says. Purity calls for us to examine our motives closely. Are we trying to introduce wisdom to the discussion for the benefit of those seeking it? Or are we using wisdom we’ve received to prove how smart we are or how little someone else knows? Now, follow James’s line of reasoning from there. If our wisdom is pure, it promotes peace. It considers others’ limitations, i.e., it operates at their level. It submits where knowledge asserts, preferring “I don’t know for sure” to “you sure don’t know anything.” Wisdom takes this tack because it’s merciful. Its prime concern is planting and nurturing healthy ideas. Doing what’s right takes precedence over correcting what’s wrong, which is where self-aggrandizing knowledge always goes awry. Then, when we follow the aforementioned ways of wisdom, there can be no doubt that what we say and do isn’t about us. Accusations of partiality and egotistical phoniness won’t stick.

More to Know

Let’s be clear: knowledge is vital. Wisdom can’t exist without it. So we constantly crave knowledge to increase wisdom. But unlike fools who suffer delusions they know it all, we admit there’s always more to know. Above all, we know boasting in knowledge is unwise. Proverbs 17.27 insists, “A man of knowledge uses words with restraint, and a man of understanding is even-tempered.” The moment we sense we’re losing control is our wake-up call. We’ve left wisdom’s ways for knowledge’s ruts, forsaken peace for confusion. How is that wise? Paul writes, “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.” (Romans 15.1) This isn’t high-road idealism. It’s sound advice. If we engage in knowledge showdowns, we’ll never get anywhere. Proving we’re the sharpest minds in the room may bring momentary satisfaction. But it won’t change others’ hearts and minds. We’re not wolves and snakes. We’re doves, creatures of peace. Knowing that—being that—should please us more than anything, because it pleases God most.

When we use our knowledge wisely, we're harmless as doves. We foster peace and understanding, rather than create discord and confusion.

(Next: Every Step You Take)

Postscript: My Kind of Preacher

I've been keeping tabs on David Gillespie for a while now, looking in on his blog from time to time, staying casually acquainted via Facebook, etc. Lately, however, I've been following him more closely, soaking up as much as much as possible of what he has to say on his site, Southern Fried Faith, because David (aka Rev. Gillespie) is my kind of preacher. He's rooted and grounded in the Word and sufficiently confident in his faith to ask questions and derive answers that challenge us in very important ways.

Today, while reading his post of a sermon he preached nearly three years back, I was bowled over. And the cherry on the sundae came when his concluding paragraph cited the scripture we examine above. It just seemed like an augur of sorts--a gentle nudge from above to make sure each of you knows David's there and worth your time and attention. His posts read like silk, but I don't doubt they tie many conservatives, legalists, and traditionalists in knots--as well they should! Here's a sample to whet your appetite:

See, the stories we’ve constructed around Jesus are easy stories, when you get down to it. To paint a portrait of Jesus as friend or lover of our souls or life coach or even as personal Lord and Savior really doesn’t demand any change in our global framing story. Other than perhaps a few moral demands in terms of personal behavior, it doesn’t demand any newness, any genuine repentance (in the truest meaning of the word) on our parts. To see the essential core of Jesus’ message as saving us from our sins in order that we can go to heaven and escape hell doesn’t really require any major shifts in our own framing story. In fact, I’d argue that it allows us to not challenge the framing story.

But to see the message of Jesus as the now present Kingdom of God, a framing story of peace and love and creativity and equity and compassion — or to use the words of Micah the prophet, of doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly — or to use the words of the author of James when he describes this alternative wisdom as pure, peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering without hypocrisy or when that author describes the essence of true religion to be found in acts like visiting orphans and widows in their distress — or to manifest this wisdom as described by the author of The Epistle to Galatians as: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control — to live as those whose lives are framed, whose lives are transformed, by a different, alternative story... now that’s another thing.

That’s just the end. There’s plenty of equally amazing, provocative ideas floating through this piece from the beginning. Click over and (as us Southern-fried folks say) dig in!

Southern Fried Faith